Coffee in Detroit

Feature

(Photo: Jesse David Green.)

Armed with barista stints in London, New York City, and Sydney, Daisuke Hughes could have opened Astro Coffee, in any trendy city. His knowledge about pulling shots and working cafés ran deep. So did his pull toward Detroit. Hughes—a native of nearby Ann Arbor—knew he could make a difference in this Rust Belt city that’s been in a crippled state since the 2008 economic recession, though, really, hobbled from long before that. When Astro Coffee opened in 2011, it was still two years before the city would file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, but unemployment was sky high. After peaking at 25 percent in 2009, it’s now about 11 percent, more than double the rate in Michigan as a whole. Over those years, scoring a good cup of coffee wasn’t top of mind for most.

Defying this, Hughes and his Aussie-born wife, Jessica Hicks, debuted the café in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

“We took a gamble to uproot ourselves to somewhere that was filled with doubt. We wanted to go where other people were not considering. It meant something to us. I did not feel that in Manhattan and London,” says Hughes, who’d become tired of high rents and competition in New York City, in particular. “You wonder if there’s more. Detroit’s been declining, and what that means is the opportunity of growth. . . . Within that, I found a compelling story.”

Astro Coffee's café in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood. (Photo: thebittenword.com/Flickr.)
Astro Coffee’s café in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. (Photo: thebittenword.com/Flickr.)

Along those lines, this is also why the couple didn’t open in an affluent Detroit suburb like Birmingham or Bloomfield Hills, cities with unemployment rates of 4.2 percent. It was a risky move indeed. Three years earlier, on the very block they chose to open Astro, Hughes worked in Mercury Coffee Bar. Opened during the heart of the recession, it closed in four months. “I knew there was no scene. I knew there was no infrastructure. Rather than being the deterrent, it was the reason we came.”

I wondered if the stories you feel about Rwanda are any different than the East Side of Detroit. I don’t think they are.

The coffee scene developed quicker than he thought. “In four and a half years, I’m beyond surprised and impressed. I thought it would take ten years,” says Hughes. Astro’s customers have an experience, both in coffee and aesthetics, that’s very much like those of the best shops in any well known coffee city. Beans are procured from the likes of George Howell Coffee, Heart Coffee Roasters, and Ritual Coffee Roasters and brewed on a three-group Synesso. It’s high-end coffee that’s been embraced.

But still, he’s not yet satisfied. “Until everybody can afford this cup of coffee, I’m not actually going to be happy. It’s easy to ignore homeless and vagrant populations. For us here, it’s in our face—every day,” says Hughes.

Within any city’s rebirth is a new wave of transplants. That includes people who, like Hughes, relocated from another region. The Red Hook opened in the suburb of Ferndale in 2011, followed by a café in Detroit’s West Village in 2014. Owners Sandi Heaselgrave and her husband, Andrew, a Brit, were introduced to artisan coffee through Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ Brooklyn roastery, near their former home. Stumptown beans are now brewed for Red Hook customers.

A barista makes a pour-over at the Red Hook in Ferndale, a Detroit suburb. (Photo: Chris and Michelle Gerard.)
A barista makes a pour-over at the Red Hook in Ferndale, a Detroit suburb. (Photo: Chris and Michelle Gerard.)
(Photo: Chris and Michelle Gerard.)
(Photo: Chris and Michelle Gerard.)

Roasting Plant is another coffee business in Detroit with New York City roots. In 2013, the coffee roaster—which already had two locations in Manhattan—opened a roasting facility and café in downtown Detroit. “Our owner is originally from the area,” says Patrick Seeney, who manages the company’s Detroit roastery. Before that he spent thirteen years as a general manager with Starbucks in Michigan. Roasting Plant owner, Elizabeth Rose, “is a native Detroiter and this is her way of helping with the comeback of Detroit,” he says.

“There’s a lot of New Yorkers coming here. Yesterday I met with a Brooklynite furniture maker who just moved here,” says Seeney. “You can buy a lot of buildings and do a lot of things. You’re able to do a lot of creative things here.” In fact, Roasting Plant’s café has morphed into a hub for other entrepreneurs and small-business owners to meet.

Roasting Plant's roastery and café in downtown Detroit. (Photo: courtesy Roasting Plant.)
Roasting Plant’s roastery and café in downtown Detroit. (Photo: courtesy Roasting Plant.)

It’s not just new faces who have helped build a coffee scene in the city. As the coffee buzz began to spill across Detroit’s 143 square miles, fanning out into its suburbs, Frank Germack III, co-owner of Germack Pistachio Company, took notice. His grandfather started the country’s oldest roaster of pistachios in Detroit in 1924. Business was humming along for the founder’s grandson, but why not get into retail? And how about nuts and coffee? Nuts were being roasted in a harvesting facility a mile from downtown Detroit.

In 2010 Germack switched things up by opening three businesses in Eastern Market, just up the street from the roasting facility and inside the country’s largest historic public-market district. Spices, herbs, and roasted coffees are sold at Germack Trading Company while at Germack Coffee Roasting Company and Espresso Bar, coffee beans are roasted on site and sold by the pound, and espresso drinks are crafted to order. The third business is Germack Pistachio Company Store, retailing nuts, snack mixes, and nut butters.

I’ve seen thirty, forty, fifty businesses incubated from meetings in our coffee shops.

“We found ourselves moving from the food-manufacturing business into retail,” says Germack, who purchased a twenty-five-kilogram coffee roaster to start his new line of business. “The nice thing about the nut business is it’s relatively stable. Coffee we can put on the same truck and it’s one less delivery for the merchant.” Distribution for wholesale orders of nuts and nut butters was already in place; asking customers to also consider coffee wasn’t much of a stretch.
Another longtime resident, Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company, had planned to expand their business, but had to weather the recession first.

Great Lakes’ founder, Greg Miracle, a Seattle native, says that at the height of the economic downturn, “we went through three or four very difficult sales declines and had to rein in every expense we could, stalling brand growth.” But he didn’t let the bad-news economy rattle the company’s earlier success. In 1999, after starting as a coffee importing company, they began a wholesale roasting business. In the summer of 2012, Great Lakes opened its first café—at the corner of Woodward and Alexandrine in Midtown. “It was a very blighted block. We became a symbol of the resurgence of Detroit,” says Miracle, who ignored well-meaning locals who suggested he build a fence around the café’s outdoor patio as, they said, the neighborhood was dangerous. “We’re not exclusive, closing ourselves in,” he says.

“Coffee bars where we control the experience from beginning to end . . . this had been on the drawing board but based on the economic downturn stalled the process for four years,” says roastmaster James Cadariu, who quickly noticed a very diverse clientele at the Midtown café and, capitalizing on that, launched monthly art shows.

Great Lakes Roasting's Midtown location. The building had been vacant for two decades before the café opened. (Photo: Jesse David Green.)
Great Lakes Roasting’s Midtown location. The building had been vacant for two decades before the café opened. (Photo: Jesse David Green.)
(Photo: Jesse David Green.
(Photo: Jesse David Green.

The Midtown location has been a poster child for Detroit’s rebirth. Before Great Lakes moved in, the building had been empty for two decades. Vice President Joe Biden even stopped in—making it one of three stops in Detroit over Labor Day weekend in 2014—to tout the neighborhood’s success. Biden’s observations have been a common refrain in White House correspondence ever since, highlighting the importance of fair wages. By 2017, a light-rail line is expected to zip past the Midtown café, inviting more people to check out the neighborhood. “We’re on a path of rebuilding density and coffee shops thrive on density,” says Cadariu. “We built it in a way that was respectful to the building and Detroit.”

Now, like Roasting Plant, they’ve become a stimulus for local business growth, in sectors that have nothing to do with coffee, simply by providing a meeting space. Wi-Fi is free to all customers at its locations in Midtown, at the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit, and in Bloomfield Hills. “I’ve seen thirty, forty, fifty businesses incubated from meetings in our coffee shops,” says Cadariu, a Detroit native with a law degree and master’s in French. “It’s refreshing for us, not just selling cups of coffee or glasses of wine.”
One challenge for these artisan-coffee businesses has been to find a viable workforce. In a city where the most sought-after jobs used to be in automobile manufacturing, the economic downturn was a game-changer. Before, people would work in the service industry while waiting for manufacturing jobs to open up. Now many of those plants have closed. “The mentality of working for the Big Three has been engrained,” says Miracle, referring to General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford.

We weren’t talking about people that were pouring tulips on day one.

“It’s challenging,” admits Cadariu, “because Detroit was never a city heavy in service.” That didn’t mean they didn’t have applicants. “Initially people were knocking down doors to get jobs with us,” says Miracle, adding that some of their first baristas deepened their hospitality careers and went on to become chefs.
While Astro Coffee has just ten employees, Hughes finds many applicants come from corporate coffee chains or cafés more focused on cultivating a cozy environment than a good cup. “We weren’t talking about people that were pouring tulips on day one,” says Hughes.

But it’s that handcrafted approach to making coffee that has helped Detroit rewrite its future. Being part of rebuilding a city may come naturally to coffee people, who are more and more interested in supporting the people in origin countries who grow the raw product they depend on. By introducing customers—through stories and marketing materials—to the coffee farmers Great Lakes sources its beans from, they hope to show they are part of building something better both at origin and at home. Cadariu says, “that’s also a narrative we’re hoping to stitch back together.”

Coffee’s social justice streak, particularly the notion of helping farmers earn a livable wage and in some cases uproot out of poverty, inspired Hughes to continue on his coffee crusade with Astro Coffee. “If you look at the reason people are interested in coffee, it’s because there’s been injustice,” he says. “I wondered if the stories you feel about Rwanda are any different than the East Side of Detroit. I don’t think they are.”

Kristine Hansen is a writer based in Milwaukee. She’s the author of the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee and Tea.